Bewl Water 1968-2014

Wednesday, 12th March

The Society’s talk in March given by Tony Lloyd was fascinating.  Tony was a ranger at Bewl Water for 30 years and his family’s farm had earlier been where Bewl Straight now stretches.

 Tony explained how the early years of planning had been spent selecting a site that would be appropriate for supplying the growing Medway towns. The Bewl Valley was chosen because of its proximity, its relatively limited disruption with no railway or major roads being affected, and its helpful less permeable clay. The land was acquired, farmers relocating their properties and stock, and some homes such as Dunsters Mill were themselves relocated whilst others were moved to Cousley Wood and to the Weald and Downland museum at Singleton. Eleven buildings and several lanes are now under the water. Once the decision about the location had been made, work began on creating the 100’ high, 1,800 metre long dam, with pipes underneath to enable the River Bewl to continue to flow, and on constructing the overflow and draw-off towers.  At the time it cost around £11 million to build but that sum would probably be ten times more now.

When full the reservoir holds nearly 7,000,000,000 gallons of water and covers 770 acres. It is filled during the winter months with rainwater running off the surrounding hills, and river water from the Teise at Goudhurst and the Medway at Yalding where massive pumps can push 60 million gallons of water uphill to the reservoir through two large pipes. Perhaps some were surprised to learn that it is winter drought that creates the problems. Water is released when it is needed by the Medway towns and to aid the flow of the rivers during dryer times. If necessary the reservoir could provide enough water for Maidstone and the surrounding villages for three years. 

More recently further work has enabled Bewl to supply the Darwell reservoir to the south to help meet the demands of an expanding Hastings. There has been the suggestion also that the level of Bewl may need to rise by as much as 3 metres if there is significant population growth in the Medway towns. This would require massive redesigning.

 Tony explained that, in the early days especially, the emphasis had been on recreation and conservation and how this had influenced strongly the development of leisure activities – no power boats so no water-skiing! Beyond what he referred to as the “honey pot centre” with its car parks, club facilities, play areas and boat storage areas, there had been a priority on conserving the natural environment and no pesticides are ever used. Many now enjoy the 12½ -mile walk, run or cycle around the reservoir – the equivalent of a half-marathon. On the water itself the various straits provide separate areas for sailing, canoeing, rowing and fishing – and for the latter there is a real battle to reduce the pike so as to preserve the supply of trout.  Conservation is of course most evident in the Nature Reserve which welcomes thousands of geese wintering in our warmer climes, and around sixty pairs of grebes, and increasing numbers of kingfishers. Bewl Water has also attracted the attention of television directors and was used in the BBC production of Great Expectations.

 Over the years other leisure opportunities have developed such as the Swallow cruise boat, dragon boat races and concerts. Sometimes extraordinary events have happened such as the emergency landing of a small flying boat aeroplane, or a very rare black poll warbler blown off course from Canada. An Education Centre has been developed. Six years ago Southern Water relinquished its interest in carefully developing the leisure facilities and these are now run commercially.

 The Society appreciated greatly the opportunity to discover more about such a vital local facility and responded warmly after a vote of thanks by David James.

                                                                                    David James and Heather Woodward.